BOOK REVIEW: The Prison Notes by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu

The name Corneliu Zelea Codreanu is one that stirs an indescribable sense of inspiration within each and every nationalist in Europe and beyond who has even so much as heard of the man and his movement, most commonly known as the Iron Guard. One of the most influential figures in modern Romanian history, Codreanu was responsible for bringing to the attention of Europe’s nationalists the struggles and strife that had been plaguing Romania for decades in the early 20th century. A combination of economic, social and political struggles holding back the common Romanian man, woman and even child during the early 20th century – especially the interwar years, between 1918 and 1939 – motivated nationalists such as Codreanu and his comrades in pursuing methods of resistance against those who would seek to eradicate the very idea of Romanian traditionalism, social cohesion and national stability for more nefarious ambitions.

This book review, however, will not delve into the wider background or core ideology of Codreanu and the Iron Guard (for all of that information, I would very strongly urge you to read his most famous work, For My Legionaries), but will instead focus on his diary entries written during his time in prison and on trial in 1938, in the months leading up to his execution that very same year on the 30th November.

A short read, The Prison Notes is a very different work from Codreanu’s most famous work, For My Legionaries. This is not an autobiography nor a manifesto, but rather just a straightforward collection of diary entries during Codreanu’s time in prison and on trial for so-called “treason” and “conspiracy against the state”. What makes this particular work special, however, is that it is very rare to read diary entries written so poetically and full of pure, yet raw, emotion regarding the physical, mental and even spiritual conditions that Codreanu had to endure during his time in prison. Outlining in powerful detail his living conditions, his ailing physical health and his fight through some of the most difficult of psychological torments, we are also given an insight into some of the most incredible examples of inner defiance this man showed against those who sought to break his will and cripple his dignity. The way in which Codreanu also describes his emotions at missing his family – contact with which the authorities at the time constantly denied – really does pull at the heartstrings and make us as readers feel sorry for not only Codreanu, but also his family. The book can also instil feelings of anger and frustration at how one-sided and manipulated the trials against Codreanu were, as it is made very much evident that Codreanu’s ultimate fate had been planned well in advance from the very beginning by the Romanian state. This very much is an emotional read, from start to finish.

There are also points in Codreanu’s writings here where he focuses not exclusively on his time in prison and his experiences there, but where he shifts focus to explore his source of personal strength and inspiration – his Romanian Orthodox faith. Anybody who is at all familiar with Codreanu and the Iron Guard will know that the Romanian Orthodox faith plays a core part in the ideology of the movement, and this is emphasised heavily in both For My Legionaries and The Prison Notes. One does not have to be a religious person themselves to see just how powerful the concept of faith was to the longevity of both Legionary ideology and Codreanu’s own sense of defiance and will against some of the most difficult trials and tribulations any human could possibly endure outside only of combat in war (which thousands of Legionaries partook in over the course of the interwar years, the Second World War itself and even after, during the anti-communist resistance campaigns).

Another important element in The Prison Notes is that Codreanu does not portray himself as the perfect man, despite his undeniably powerful influence among nationalists of Europe even during his own lifetime. There are several points in the diary entries where he openly admits that he often experiences intense physical and psychological hardship and emotional difficulties. He has even admitted to crying at some points, which tells us that Codreanu is not some sort of invincible superhero that is one-of-a-kind, but rather that he, just like all of us, is a human being, capable of experiencing the very same feelings, thoughts and emotions that we are all capable of experiencing, man, woman and even child alike. This does not, in any way, shape or form, negatively affect his image as one of the most influential nationalist figures in modern history, but rather it does the opposite – it shows us that there is no shame whatsoever in expressing personal emotions during times of great struggle and hardship, and that even the most influential of leaders can experience pain and suffering. This is yet just another example of how Codreanu serves as a great inspiration to all of us as nationalists – that each and every single one of us within our respective nationalist movements can look at Codreanu and his movement and realise that everything that he and his comrades stood for are timeless ideals that can and should apply to each and every nationalist in Europe and the wider world today.

Following on from Codreanu’s diary entries themselves, The Prison Notes also include a selection of essays from none other than Italian traditionalist philosopher Julius Evola, who personally met Codreanu and conversed extensively with him during travels to Romania himself. These essays discuss in great detail Evola’s own thoughts and personal analysis of Codreanu and the Iron Guard, which serve as an extra insight into the philosophy of the movement and its most key figures from an outside, third-party perspective. It should be noted, however, that these essays were published in various different outlets at different times, so do not be surprised to see a fair bit of repetition and repeated accounts in Evola’s writings here. There are still plenty of unique pieces of information to be found within every one of Evola’s essays included here.

Also included within The Prison Notes are two forewords – the first by Faust Bradesco – a Legionary veteran and intellectual who was exiled to France by the Communists post-war – and the second by none other than Horia Sima, Codreanu’s successor as leader of the Iron Guard, from 1938 to 1941. There are also a number of rare photos of Codreanu and the Iron Guard included in the book, which make for highly interesting viewing and added visual context to the image of Codreanu and the movement itself.

Overall, it goes without saying that The Prison Notes is very highly recommended reading for any nationalist, but I would, however, strongly advise that one reads For My Legionaries prior to this book, as the added context and advance knowledge of Codreanu and the origin and ideology of the Iron Guard itself will serve to enhance the understanding and overall reading experience of The Prison Notes.

Stefan Brakus

ETN Board Member (Serbia)

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